When immigrants and refugees settle in Lewiston-Auburn they may not be thinking about lead, but often lead is waiting for them. The cities have the highest rate of lead poisoning in Maine — much of that in the cheap housing units that families rent when they first move to the area.
An article in the Lewiston Sun Journal this weekend looks at how lead poisoning is affecting new Mainers, and finds it’s hitting them hard.
Maine Things Considered Host Nora Flaherty spoke with Erin Guay, executive director of Healthy Androscoggin, which works with residents and property owners on dealing with lead and the health problems that it causes.
This interview has been edited for clarity.
Flaherty: Could you start out by telling me about the lead situation in Lewiston-Auburn?
Guay: Lewiston-Auburn has the highest rate of lead poisoning mostly because we have such old housing and it hasn’t been well maintained over the years. So the chipping and peeling paint is causing lead dust, and kids, who typically have put their hands in their mouth a lot, are getting poisoned by that dust.
Flaherty: I know the state doesn’t track the backgrounds of people whose kids test high for lead. But we can look at some of the risk factors that point us toward the conclusion that these people are disproportionately suffering from lead poisoning. Can you talk to me about that a bit?
Guay: So when new Mainers move to Lewiston-Auburn they tend to go to the poorest housing, and that housing tends to be poorly maintained and where we often have our biggest lead issues.
And then on top of that new Mainers may not know that lead is an issue or may have a hard time accessing the health care industry in order to get their kids tested. And so it may be harder for them to figure out that their kid has a lead issue.
Flaherty: Could you describe what the symptoms are of lead poisoning and how you might you might see it?
Guay: Kids can have language and speech delays or hearing damage. Really, if parents are identify anything that they think their child isn’t developing normally they should definitely go have their child tested at the pediatrician’s office or at a clinic. But really any child who lives in an older home should be tested. So if you live in a home that was built before 1978 you should have your kids tested just in case, because you may not notice any of those signs. But kids can be poisoned even at a really low level of lead. So it’s really important that we identify that early so that the source can be dealt with and we can protect our kids’ developing brains.
Flaherty: So with respect to this particular community, to new Mainers, what is your organization and what are other organizations in this area doing to address the concerns about lead poisoning?
Guay: So one new initiative that we have is we’re putting some new resources into helping to educate new Mainers that live in the downtown census tracks, which is where most of the poisonings happen. And we’re helping to educate them about the lead issue and then asking them to go out and educate their friends and neighbors about the same issues so that the information is being spread through that community and in a culturally appropriate way. And then we’re also working on a number of initiatives with our partners to actually get to the root cause of the housing issue. The problem with that is that it’s such an enormous problem. There are 6,000 units of housing in the Twin Cities that likely have lead in them. So the problem is just so enormous that it’s going to take time to address it, if we keep going at the current rate.
Flaherty: So what are some of the victories that you’ve had and what are some of the remaining obstacles in dealing with this?
Guay: Over the past eight years we’ve actually seen a 37 percent decrease in lead poisoning and we definitely think that’s a success. But having any kid poisoned is really a tragedy. So we need to keep working on the issue. Another success has been that our local doctors are screening more children than they used to. So right now about 80 percent of children that are 1 year old are screened for lead, and that’s the highest rate in the state. I think the important point is that we really need to rally as a community and we all have a role in lead poisoning prevention. So parents need to get their kid tested. They need to clean up lead dust that may be in their home if they live in an older home, whether they rent or own. Our landlords need to be identifying when they have lead paint in their units and then our local governments also need to be helping landlords and tenants to mobilize and to figure out new ways to address this problem.
This story was originally published Nov. 13, 2017 at 4:02 p.m. ET.